NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Even as the economic recovery has largely taken hold and most of the alphabet soup of economic recovery programs has been wound down, it's good news that one program, the Home Affordable Refinance Program, has been extended.
Introduced in the first months of Barack Obama's presidency, and extended into 2016 last month, HARP was set up to allow homeowners who had underwater mortgages (in which the mortgage value is greater than the home's value) or owed almost as much as the value of their homes to refinance at lower rates.
More than 3.3 million Americans have now used HARP to lower their mortgage rates and to move into fixed loans from adjustable loans. But as of the end of 2014, some 604,678 American homeowners were still eligible for the program and had not yet used it, according to the Federal Housing Finance Agency Web site HARP.gov.
HARP allows homeowners with limited equity in their homes to refinance their mortgages with far more favorable terms. On paper it's a terrific program: It allows responsible homeowners to refinance at today's lower rates even if they have little equity or if their mortgage is under water. It also reduces some of the paperwork and expense required to refinance.
But it has one big check on its progress -- homeowners have to apply for it, and many thousands that are eligible, and would benefit from it, haven't. The states where home prices fell the most in the crisis are still among those with the largest number of HARP-eligible homeowners.
The site lists California, for instance, as having more than 31,000 homeowners who qualify for the program but have never applied. In Illinois, it's close to 48,000. In Florida, more than 81,000 eligible homeowners would benefit from a HARP refinancing but haven't sought one.
HARP refinancing provides homeowners with extra cash in the very markets that were hit hardest from the downturn, and still have not fully climbed back -- spending money that can benefit those local economies.
Refinancing at today's rates, many people will have an extra few hundred dollars in their pockets to spend for the duration of the loan term, which could mean more spending money for all of those consumers for decades to come.
It's likely that some of the people still eligible for HARP assistance don't know that they are. The government is working to change this, by holding town hall-style meetings with community leaders (including one scheduled for Friday in Phoenix) to get the word out. The program's recent extension will provide more time for those conversations.
To qualify, a mortgage must predate the program's implementation in 2009, the unpaid balance must be within 80% of the property's value and the borrower should have few to zero delinquencies.